Bored staff? Gamification could change all that

Interview: Aaron Dignan, author of Game Frame, on what games can teach business owners...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor on

Interview: Aaron Dignan, author of Game Frame, on what games can teach business owners...

Author Aaron Dignan thinks businesses should be looking at the world of work through the eyes of a game designer to tap into the addictive power of games

Author Aaron Dignan thinks businesses should be looking at the world of work through the eyes of a game designer and recast processes to tap into the addictive power of gamesPhoto: Undercurrent

What's the difference between a massively multiplayer online role-playing game such as World of Warcraft (WoW) and your job? An awful lot obviously - unless your workplace is routinely populated by goblins. But such details aside, the most obvious difference is surely that one is a game and the other is work.

Yet there is a surprising amount of crossover. Tasks, achievements and goals exist in the world of work, and in the Warcraft Universe. So what else sets WoW and work apart? Or to put the question another way, why isn't your job as engaging as a game of WoW is to one of its 12 million-plus subscribers?

It's questions such as these that US author Aaron Dignan sets out to answer in his book Game Frame, which explores why people are motivated to play games and how businesses can use game mechanics and behavioural tricks to engage employees and customers.

"[Playing games] feels more important to a person than completing their expense report at work because of the way the game system is structured," says Dignan.

"It's structured in such a way that it makes them feel powerful and important and special. At work we have that constant struggle with what's powerful and important and special about what we're doing - so that's why people rush home to get on their video game because they frankly feel like a more recognised and substantive member of society in some of these other settings. That's the problem I'm really raising a flag on right now.

"The idea of why we're so compelled by games isn't any one thing. It's not just the aspects of competition, or just the fact that they take us out of everyday life and make us a hero, or just the fact that they let us practise our skills - they let us put all that together so it's kind of the perfect catnip for our brain," he adds.

"It involves things from the world of behavioural economics and psychology and entertainment and so many other art forms that create this little apex."

Dignan is not alone: whether it's game designer Jane McGonigal's TED talk about how the world should be tapping into the skills of millions of gamers, or self-styled chief ninja Seth Priebatsch giving a keynote at SXSW on how to add a game layer on top of life to make it more exciting, gamification is the buzzword du jour.

This umbrella term encompasses a variety of techniques, often at their most potent when deployed in games, that games evangelists argue can bridge the disconnect described above: what makes games so addictive - and jobs so frequently disengaging?

Businesses should be looking at the world of work through the eyes of a game designer and reconfiguring its roles and processes so they tap the addictive power of games, says Dignan. They could sprinkle some of this magic engagement dust around the workplace to transform dull disengagement into glittering possibility and purpose, or turn a bland product into a living and breathing social phenomenon.

Internet companies such as Facebook, Foursquare, Google and Twitter are masters of putting game mechanics to work for them inside and outside their businesses but gamification is nothing new, says Dignan. He points out that the Boy Scouts movement has been...

...using skills-based badging to motivate its members for 100 years - beating Foursquare to the punch by a century or so.

So why is everyone talking about gamification now?

"We're at this moment in time now where the technology that drives gaming has got to the point where it's a real business, it's a real industry, and you're seeing gaming happening all around you in a way where maybe in the past it was reserved for the lobby or the living room," says Dignan. "Now it's on the train right next to you... People are just thinking about it more.

"What motivates people is really the act of learning," he tells silicon.com. "It sounds counterintuitive because we associate learning with school where, surprisingly, a lot of learning doesn't happen because it's not set up very well.

"This act of 'I'm getting something', 'I'm figuring something out', 'I'm getting better at it' [is what motivates people] - and that's why a game like Angry Birds can be downloaded 50 million times, because you have this very simple skill of flinging an object across the screen, which is a very satisfying visceral sensation, and you get to practise it and get better and better at it and see that it's a better and better impact over time. Those are the games that last forever - like Tetris or chess."

For a job to give a worker the kind of buzz that Angry Birds players get as they drag their finger back and get ready to fling, it needs to provide continual challenge, says Dignan - challenge that is neither too hard to be discouraging, nor too easy to bore: "It's about the challenges that face me matching up to my abilities just enough to push me a little bit."

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's Flow

Graph from The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi showing his concept of flowImage: Wesley Fryer

Dignan cites the work of Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on the concept of flow, which defines activities that rise above boredom but stop short of creating anxiety as 'perfect porridge' - Goldilocks-style optimal tasks that really engage our interest.

"Flow activities induce a state of mind classified by enjoyment, loss of time perception and a suspension of self," he writes in Game Frame. "Human beings achieve a state of optimal experience when our skills are continually in balance with the challenges we face. This means that as we progress in any activity, we should be challenged just beyond the level of our abilities."

A lack of flow is the mind-numbing status quo experienced by too many white- and blue-collar workers, says Dignan. "Do I feel like I am getting better and better every day at my job, or am I feeling like my job is stagnating because I've mastered all the techniques and I'm sitting here wondering what to do next? That's the face you see on a lot of people in accounts payable or behind a cash register. I've certainly been there myself: what's left for me here?"

Such burnt-out office workers are common enough to be a cliché but they are a symptom of bad design lurking at the core of the business, in Dignan's view. "We've built a system based on that old industrial model of 'how do we make widgets better, faster, cheaper, stronger' and not 'how do we make the entire business move forward and have a sense of momentum' - which I think is what really turns people on more than anything else," he says.

"The idea that I would work in the same job for a year or two or three without...

...really a clear sense of exactly where I stand or exactly how far I've progressed towards my next promotion or my next raise is a little bit untenable - especially [for younger generations]. What's happened is basically we've got this system set up to make money, to make growth happen, but not necessarily to think about progress as a focal point for the company or even for individual departments or roles."

Games get all this, says Dignan. Modern video games especially so, having been carefully honed and crafted over years by phalanxes of highly skilled game designers, distilling the tricks and techniques that act on gamers like a drug - encouraging engagement to the point of addiction.

Game designers know their games have to work hard to earn their stripes because a boring game is no longer a game. So if a boring job isn't producing the kind of work that ultimately helps your business flourish, perhaps the world of work has something to learn from the realm of play?

"Over the past couple of years some great studies have come out of academia on what actually gets people excited at work. You always think money and rank are going to be the top-rated results but quite often we see progress at the top of that list and the idea of moving forward in the company, making stuff happen," notes Dignan.

Yet there can still be something of a Victorian attitude in the average workplace - whether it's banning Facebook access or frowning on working from home. If you're having fun, runs the management line, you can't possibly be working. Such a management style is short-sighted in Dignan's view.

Factory worker: Even repetitive jobs can benefit from a game layer, says Dignan

Even repetitive jobs can benefit from a game layer, says DignanPhoto: Seattle Municipal Archives

"Learning and exploring do come at the expense of repeating and focusing and being heads down but what's funny is the net impact is better. So you may have someone who is doing an activity with a different perspective and it may not be as efficient in the early stages but actually results in an innovation or a new way to do something or a net positive impact on the business.

"So it's a counterintuitive way to manage but it's more in line with the creative capital that we're all trying to create these days vs the literal physical capital of the last 100 years," he tells silicon.com.

Of course not every job involves creativity, and many jobs require a lot of boring repetition. But in his book, Dignan cites several examples where even the stereotypical dead-end data-entry or McJob can benefit from having a game layer on top of it - making a repetitive task more interesting over time by creating "a new skill chain within that framework".

He cites the example of US retailer Target using a time-rating system for checkout operators to encourage them to ring items through the checkout more quickly.

"The faster they check you out the better a grade they get and that's happening all day, so they're actually playing a time game when you think they're just repeating another checkout process. That actually changes behaviour quite dramatically so I think there are ways to take the stock activity and put a new activity on top of it, a new challenge on top of it, and that's what makes it interesting."

Time is just one variable that can be used to...

...gamify a job or a process. In the book, Dignan delves into a variety of tricks and techniques that are used in games to build engagement but can also be applied to the world of work.

Whether it's targets, competition, chance, scarcity, puzzles, novelty, social pressure, teamwork, forced decisions, data or many other games-style layers or mechanics that can be applied or added, Dignan argues that what is almost a forensic science of gameplay can transform jobs and services to the benefit of everyone: employee, customer and business owner alike.

Dignan cites the example of a US design company that created time tokens for meetings and distributed a set amount of these tokens to its project managers each week for 'buying' time from other employees. The aim of this game frame was to increase the effectiveness of meetings by reducing the amount of time people spent in meetings.

Each employee was also furnished with a single token that could end an unproductive meeting on the spot. This game-style system turned a bloated office staple - the meeting - into a game of time management based on careful use of a scarce resource - time - that actively encouraged employees to become engaged with the process of being more productive.

Meetings: How productive are yours?

Gamification can transform meetings, so it's worth asking how productive yours arePhoto: Shutterstock

While Game Frame makes the case for businesses to deploy techniques such as this meeting-token system inside their organisation, to get more out of their own workforce, the most obvious examples of gamification are on the customer-facing side - from long-standing retail loyalty schemes such as supermarket rewards points and frequent-flyer air miles programmes, to the rash of internet businesses that seek to change people's behaviour by deploying psychological tricks such as time pressure, in the case of Gilt Groupe, or social pressure, in the case of Groupon.

"All Gilt Groupe has to do is use a time mechanic to kind of create a little pressure around a moment in time and they get all this engagement, or all Groupon has to do is to use a social pressure or a crowd-sourced model and that's incredibly powerful stuff," says Dignan. "Where is this coming from? It seems to all be emanating from the game space."

The internet itself has also paved the way for wider acceptance of games, according to Dignan, by giving people a common toolkit to interact with the web and each other, even as video games have branched out - evolving from being something done by a single player or two in a room into the social space of the living room and beyond: online, and onto the ubiquitous mobile devices in everyone's pocket.

"The internet has had a huge impact on [people's ability to respond to game mechanics] because it is a huge interactive construct where you're always pointing and clicking and following the breadcrumbs to different experiences and different information," Dignan tells silicon.com.

"We've noticed for sure that when aspects of games start to creep into a website experience - whether it be eBay or Kickstarter or Gilt Groupe or whatever it is - that you see this sort of intense increase in engagement and commitment and follow-through, and that has just piqued everyone's interest."

The social component of the gamification process is...

A screengrab from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

What can games, such as World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, teach businesses? Image: Blizzard Entertainment

...a core constituent of its addictive glue - perhaps the key ingredient. The potent power of social involvement can be illustrated by its impact on gaming, turning this previously siloed experience taking place in a darkened room into a networked one, connecting players to scores of other like-minded souls across the world and enabling massive online communities such as WoW to arise. WoW now boasts a subscriber base that is bigger than the population of Greece.

"It's not enough to level up in a game, it's not enough to achieve something - people want the recognition of that achievement to be public," says Dignan. "It's not just that you get a badge when you use Foursquare on your phone, it's that that badge is something your friends can see. It's the age-old [business of] standing out as above average, as an attractive member of society to stand up and be recognised. Those achievements and badges have become our peacock feathers."

So that's the theory of gamification. But what about the practice? The world may be ready for gaming - but is the average office equipped to turn dead-end data-entry jobs into epic quests of personal achievement? Probably not quite yet, admits Dignan.

"We've got several hundred thousand game designers out there but they're all designing games for our iPhones and our computers and our Xboxes. And I think that's a lost opportunity. [Businesses] need to start to compete with the games industry for these kinds of minds and thinkers… start bringing on some of these minds to their HR team, to their training team, to their employee-development team and say, 'Hey, apply that skill set to our world for a minute and let's see where the opportunities lie'."

Dignan believes there will be a "rash of experimentation" in the coming years as businesses try to grapple with games theory and find effective ways to continually motivate employees without damaging essential business processes.

"There is a resources gap here - this stuff is not easily learned, it's not learned overnight and to be really good at the subtle interplay between these mechanics takes practice and so you don't want to do the learning on the road when you're a corporate like McDonalds and you have millions of employees. You want to have an expert guide you in that process," he says. "[Businesses] do have a lot of [employee-development] programmes already in place. They have a lot of training and development in place. They're just not necessarily focusing on the right things."

"It's easy to incentivise something that you want but that can also come at the expense of other things," he adds. "So I think over the next few years we're going to have that sort of growing-pains process with [gamification] - of saying, 'Oh right, there's some psychology to this, there's some behavioural aspect to this, there's some sociological aspect to this and, as we balance all those with the various stakeholders and needs, how do we get the best result without unintended consequences?'. Part of it is really practising that art."

Another challenge businesses will face is...

...how to feed information about employees' progress at work - or lack of it - back to the workforce in a way that doesn't create more problems than it solves, be it by undermining workplace trust or simply creating a continual torrent of data that distracts from the task at hand.

On the technology infrastructure side, there's lots of work to do too, to put the right real-time systems in place - the sensors, data-collecting processes and feedback loops - that will generate the dynamic environment in which work can become a kind of play.

"How does your system measure when someone's checking in, when they're leaving, what they're doing? All that 1984 stuff that can be used for good or for evil. I think that will become a part of [business processes] over time," predicts Dignan.

Should businesses be appointing some kind of chief engagement officer to oversee these efforts? Or doing a job audit to identify roles and processes that have hit the engagement buffers and need a bit of games-style dust to rekindle workers' interest? Dignan believes the future for many organisations will lie in thinking about whole experiences - and perhaps employing the services of a chief experience designer.

"Experiences are the things that make up our everyday life - whether we're at work or on the road or at home - and I think this notion of a true experience designer is something that's going to expand over the next 10 years," he says.

"You'll see people who literally think about what is the experience of coming to the New York city subway? What triggers and pulls on your attention? Guides you through this experience? It's a really interesting mix of architectural expertise and behavioural expertise, and that's why I describe it as this great overlap or this great soup of behavioural sciences."

For now, for most businesses, the chief experience officer's chair hasn't yet been budgeted for, so they'll have to make do with a boring old CEO. But Dignan says there are a few things organisations that are keen to hit the gamification start button can do right now - to see what game designers and their carefully crafted systems have to offer.

"I would take the people who are most burned out in the organisation and put them at a table with a handful of experts in this field from outside the company and just facilitate a dialogue. That's a great first step," he says. "If you get three game designers and three burnt-out employees around the table for an hour you are going to hear stuff that really blows your hair back and I think that will start to create an early kind of an agenda."

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